Saturday, March 20, 2010

When in Japan, Learn to Make Tortillas

My friends, the time has come. The time has come to stop living a life without tortillas. I don’t even know how I made it this far. You see, back at home, the humble tortilla was a part of my daily life. Nearly every night I dragged one across the flame of my gas range until it warmed and softened, blistered and charred. I’d tear off strips and christen each with a few drips of Tapatio or Sriracha. Sometimes I drizzled the whole thing with truffle oil and a sprinkle of garlic powder. It's a reliable comfort food on it's own, and even better when wrapped around any number of tasty bits and pieces. I know I said all those nice things about rice, but the truth is you can't wrap that shit around anything!

I was golden for about three weeks after Cathy personally delivered a jumbo pack of flour tortillas, along with two cans of beans (refried and black), to my apartment door in Kanazawa. I rationed as best I could, while still dutifully sharing the bounty with my equally needy BFIJ two doors down. We feasted on pork fajitas, chicken shitake burritos and spinach and cheese quesadillas. We sliced avocados, sautéed onions and peppers and topped every chile and cumin scented creation with a dollop of plain yogurt. And then they were gone.

Then one day I realized: I can make tortillas! The ingredient list is short and basic and they don’t require an oven. Truly authentic tortillas call for lard, but I found plenty of recipes online that substitute easy-to-find vegetable oil.

Despite the lack of lard, I set out to make the tortillas as authentically Mexican as possible. I balanced a cutting board over the kitchen sink to create a countertop, rolled out the dough with a tall-can of Kirin and cooked them in a nonstick frying pan. With every roll of the can, Mexican grandmothers everywhere felt a sharp, stabbing pain in their hearts. They clutched their chests as the dough met the Teflon. Their daughters frowned, diagnosed them with heart burn and sent them off to bed with a handful of Tums. Lo siento, abuelitas.

It took a bit of fiddling with the heat and the thickness of the dough, but by the end I had a short stack of chewy tortillas, bubbled up in places and properly spotted with char marks. Perhaps they weren’t the best tortillas in the world, but they certainly seemed to be the next morning when I wrapped one around a heap of scrambled eggs and avocado. Not bad for a ghetto rigged operation conducted by a Jewish girl in Japan at midnight on a Thursday night.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Foodtopia : Kanazawa

"You know this is probably just gonna be fair food, right?" Yoko's glass must have been half empty as we slosh slosh sloshed through Central Park's lawn-cum-swamp, our wellies ankle deep in muddy slush and melted snow.

"Really?" I was disappointed. Really disappointed. I'd been looking forward to Foodtopia, Kanazawa's annual winter food festival, for weeks. Especially since we'd absentmindedly mixed up the dates and arrived at an empty park, bouncing like bunnies and starving, the Friday before.

But then I smelled it. The unmistakable scent of barbecue. Fresh local oysters, pried from the cold waters of the Noto Peninsula, steamed and whistled on long grills, sending smoke signals of love up into the sky for all to see. Fat scallops, giant shell-on shrimp, and butterflied squid were pierced with skewers and painted with a sweet soy sauce. If this was fair food, then I was a hungry carny. I channeled Templeton the rat from Charlotte's Web: "A fair is a veritable smorgasbord orgasbord orgasbord..."

The park was a sea of tents, each one selling some sort of eye catching, delicious looking treat. This being a festival, there were many foods on sticks. But instead of corn dogs and fried Twinkies, we were salivating over tender dumplings, filled with everything from pork to garlic and greens, portable strips of okinomiyaki and skewers of mochi balls.

"Today is the best day of my life," I said to Yoko as we passed a tent selling freshly fried tofu doughnut holes, as light and fluffy as a Danielle Steel novel. 

We decided to take a lap before committing. We were not about to make a rookie mistake. Only an amateur would fill her belly at the start of a food festival, only to miss out on what awaits at the very last tent. But surely we needed energy for this trek so we scooped up a plate of barbecued oysters and entered the maze of tents.
Our second commitment of the day was to a warm bowl of rice absolutely covered with negitoro (chopped fatty tuna belly and green onion) and the big ol' orange salmon eggs that go pop between your teeth. It was shockingly cheap and I ate my half slowly, savoring each little blast of seawater, the creamy tuna and chewy rice.
There was absolutely no way we could turn down the crab shells filled with hunks of crab, gooey crab guts and sweet claw meat. I may not be able to see the Sea of Japan from Kanazawa, but Foodtopia is proof that it's seafood stacked waters are only a 20 minute train ride away.

After sampling sesame coated chicken wings, chunks of jiggly mochi rolled in matcha powder, the aforementioned scallops and several dumplings it was time for something hot and steaming. We did what the Japanese do best, wait in line for something delicious, and were rewarded with the best bowl of ramen I've tasted in Japan. Rich and meaty, but not too oily, perfectly al dente noodles and excellent accessories; it was my first taste of Kyushu ramen delivered by a shop that traveled hundreds of miles to make me happy. 

"What's that singing? Is that live A Capella?" Of course it was. What better way to work off a belly full of food than to jog over to a big stage where four Japanese 20 year olds were belting out American oldies while two Japanese guys beat boxed in the background? Love Potion No. 9 (or as they sang it: Ruv Potion) will never be the same again. Yoko and I sang along, danced and clapped, while the audience sat still and silent. The girls smiled big, giggled and waved at us from the stage.

The older I get, the more I crave sweets, so we capped off our morning at Foodtopia with a visit to the taiyaki stand. The popular little fish-shaped pastries are traditionally filled with adzuki bean paste, but here we could also choose from several custards with flavors like vanilla, chocolate and espresso.

 "Today is the best day of my life," I told Yoko for the seventh time that day.

Then we did what nobody wants to do after they've skulked around a food festival for hours, stuffing themselves silly like Templeton the rat: we went to work. Sometimes the best days of your life are only two hours long.